CROCODILE AND LEOPARD by Gavin Chappell
8. Saurian Combat
The vegetation atop the crags on the far side of the pool rustled, and then another colossal creature stood there.
Reddish in colour with black stripes, its skin was scaly and reptilian. Unlike Behemoth, still charging through the pool towards the terrified people, it stood on two powerful legs, but it had a long, lashing tail like a crocodile; it also had a fanged snout much like that beast’s, too. Two arms jutted from its chest, terminating in taloned hands.
It roared and charged down the rocky bank towards Behemoth.
Alerted by the noise, Behemoth swung its neck round and saw the rapidly approaching monster. Futilely, it tried to escape but then the giant two-legged crocodile leapt upon its back and sank its clawed feet in. Behemoth struggled as the new monster opened its jaws and bit deep into its back.
As the two huge reptiles fought in the middle of the pool, water swamped the banks, flooding the undergrowth and knocking Marcus and his companions off their feet. The procurator staggered up again, seized Didius Seneca and hauled the old man to his feet. Brutus and Candace scrambled after them as they hurried up the little beach and onto the rocks at the base of the fortress-like crag. Over the roar of the struggling monsters, the encouraging shouts of the two Praetorians drifted like the cries of birds.
As Marcus scaled the rock-face with Didius Seneca, Candace and Brutus, the roaring of Behemoth grew more frenzied. The crashing water shot straight up the cliff, as if following them. Pausing after hauling Didius Seneca after himself onto a narrow ledge, Marcus looked back down.
The sun dazzled back at him from the water of the pool. Right in its heart, the two monsters struggled, Behemoth lumbering round and round, trying vainly to dislodge the two-legged creature that had sunk claws into its hide, teeth into his back. Behemoth’s tail lashed out again and again, sending water flooding up the bank time after time. The long snaky neck whipped back and forth futilely. Gradually, its struggles became weaker.
Candace, Didius Seneca and Brutus joined Marcus on the ledge, and watched. Brutus had a look of satisfaction on his face as Behemoth, the monster they had feared so much when he pursued them through the cavern, subsided into the blood-clouded water. Its scaly flank lifted and fell, lifted and fell, then shuddered to a stop.
Didius Seneca was panting, and sweat stood out on his forehead. Candace was inscrutable.
Behemoth’s killer leapt up onto the huge, half-sunk carcase, leant down, steadying itself with its long tail, and proceeded to tear bloody chunks of meat from Behemoth’s flesh.
The surrounding conifers had become a rookery for winged bat-lizards, like the harpy they had encountered by the lake. As the bipedal monster gorged itself on Behemoth-meat, brave winged snakes swooped down and pecked at the carcase until the biped snarled at them and they flew back into the trees.
‘Now if you could guarantee a show like that in the Colosseum,’ Brutus said at last, ‘you would be forever in the Emperor’s favour.’
Marcus laughed. Brutus was right. Once they had got safely out of the way, it had been the beast-fight to end all beast-fights. ‘The mob would love me if I could lay on a show like that.’
Candace looked uncomprehendingly at each of them, then scrambled on up the last few feet of cliff. Marcus and Brutus followed, helping Didius Seneca, who seemed dazed by it all. From up here, they could see more of the country ahead; forest canopy, broken in places by areas of tall grass or rocks, sweeping up rapidly into a high escarpment over the edge of which the river tumbled in the waterfall Marcus had seen from the pool. The mountains beyond were a little clearer, and the mist no longer clung to their snow-capped peaks.
The Praetorians hurried to meet them at the top of the cliff. Both looked excited, their faces flushed. Quintus said, ‘We thought that the first monster was going to get you!’
‘Then the second one appeared,’ added Primus. ‘I didn’t think it stood a chance against the first one, but it won.’
‘That’s five sesterces you owe me when we get back to Rome,’ said Quintus.
Marcus looked enquiringly at the rocks beyond them. ‘Did you find anything?’
‘Yes we did,’ said Quintus. ‘It’s like a fortress, as you thought, sir. There’s a big hollow in the middle of the rock that could be defended against an army. ‘ He looked queasy. ‘But it looks like people have already been there.’
‘People?’ asked Marcus, feeling a chill. He had not thought anyone other than Simeon had ever come to this wild land. He looked back down at the pool.
The clifftop had given the Praetorians a grandstand view, but now it was becoming more placid. The biped was wading off sluggishly through the bloody water, having gorged itself on meat torn from Behemoth’s side. Now the winged lizards tore at what remained, squabbling like vultures. It was a wild, savage scene.
‘Show us this fortress,’ said Brutus commandingly.
The two Praetorians led them through a line of boulders and down into a hollow that took up much of the top of the crag. As they clambered down, Marcus saw what the Praetorians had clearly taken to be signs of habitation.
A kind of pavement of small, rounded, yellowish boulders lined the clayey ground. As Marcus trod on them in his sandaled feet, they seemed oddly spongy. The two Praetorians did not come down to join them.
‘What are you afraid of?’ Brutus barked.
‘Over there,’ said Quintus, pointing to the far side of the hollow. Marcus turned and saw a human skull grinning out at him from the clay. Then another, then another. The far wall was studded with skulls. Human skulls for the most part, some seemingly animal skulls. Like trophies. Who could have brought them here?
‘And look at your feet,’ Primus said.
Marcus looked down at the round, regular, yellowish boulders. He kicked at one with his foot. It rolled over and Marcus found the bony face of another skull grinning up at him.
‘Disgusting,’ said Brutus. ‘Someone’s got a sick sense of humour.’
‘And a lot of time on their hands,’ Marcus said. He retched.
‘What is the matter?’ asked Candace, joining him. Marcus indicated the skulls. Could she not see? She shrugged. ‘Is that all?’
Marcus shook his head, unable to understand her. He spoke to Brutus.
‘This means there must be people here,’ he said. ‘Surely?’
Brutus nodded grimly. He directed the Praetorians to shift the skulls and throw them over the cliff. ‘It can’t be any of those monsters that did this, can it? This isn’t the lair of some beast. But the skulls have been gathered, almost like hunting trophies.’
Marcus frowned. ‘But how could anyone live in such a dangerous place? We know next to nothing about this country, but we know the local fauna is deadly.’
‘We’ll have to keep our eyes open for hostiles,’ Brutus said. ‘Someone must be on guard at all times.’
‘Centurion,’ said Primus, as he and Quintus cleared out the osseous litter, ‘we’ve had nothing to eat since last night. When will we eat again?’
Brutus shrugged. ‘All our supplies were lost with the raft,’ he said. ‘You expect me to provide food out of thin air?’
Marcus had been back to the clifftop with Candace to check on the situation below. Hearing Primus’ complaint, he said, ‘What about Behemoth?’
Brutus looked up at him, scowling in incomprehension. ‘I don’t think Behemoth will ever be hungry again, procurator,’ he snapped.
‘No, I mean the carcase,’ Marcus replied. ‘The two-legged crocodile has gone, even the flying lizards have left it. But there’s still meat on its bones.’
‘Eat that?’ Brutus said. He looked up. The sun was beginning to go down behind the cliff. In a few hours it would be night. No wonder they were all hungry. ‘It’s worth a try. You and the Negress can get a fire going, my men and I will do the butchery.’ He drew his sword. ‘Good thing I kept hold of this, although it almost drowned me. It’ll be turned to good use now.’
He led the two Praetorians back down the cliff.
Didius Seneca had sat down tiredly with his back against the rock. Candace gave him a look, then rolled her eyes at Marcus. ‘He won’t be much use. Are we camping here?’
‘Unless you have any objections,’ Marcus replied, as usual ready to defer to her huntress’ knowledge. Yet she seemed out of her element in this new environment.
‘We’ll need firewood, then,’ she said. ‘It would be best we take it in turns, with one of us to watch over the old man.’
After a few trips down the cliff into the conifers on the far side, they had enough firewood gathered to keep them all night. The sky above began to take on the deep blue of evening. Night came quickly in these lands, and Marcus wanted to get the fire going quickly.
‘We have nothing to light it with,’ he realised.
Candace’s eyes gleamed as she looked at him. ‘You know very little about survival,’ she said, taking two different pieces of wood, one from a conifer, another from a deciduous tree. She placed one against the other and began to rotate it between her palms.
Marcus squatted beside her. He shrugged. ‘I have the slaves to light fires for me, back in Rome.’
‘And here those soldiers carry out all such mundane tasks,’ Candace observed, concentrating on rotating the wood.
‘Yes,’ said Marcus. ‘But a huntress like you must know all about survival.’
Candace looked at him again. ‘In the wilds out there, yes,’ she said, nodding her head in the direction of the cliff through which they had come. ‘But in this new land… I don’t know. I miss Degou,’ she added.
‘Degou?’ said Marcus. ‘Oh, the Blemmye.’ He had thought Candace hadn’t mourned him at all. ‘Was he your lover?’
Candace stared at him in shock, eyebrows raised, then glanced away with a huge roar of laughter. She looked back, her eyes twinkling with good humour. ‘How very rude!’ she said. ‘You Romans. When first I saw you, I was almost sick. So pasty and white, like the walking dead. Simeon had been ugly, but you…’ Marcus was piqued. He wasn’t as handsome as he had been in his youth, but his wife told him he was still a fine-looking man. He tried to picture Drusilla, and Marcellus, but somehow he couldn’t.
‘Yet I must thank you for aiding me before,’ Candace added. ‘You are a true comrade.’ She gave him a look of anguish. ‘I am so alone here. You are the only one who understands me.’
Marcus’ heart boomed deafeningly in his ears. Gently, he placed a hand on her arm. Abruptly, she stared at it, puzzled. Then at him.
‘The old man,’ she added, looking at him oddly, ‘speaks Greek, you say, but whenever I speak to him, he looks at me as if I am a wild beast. But you understand what I say. It make me feel less alone.’
Marcus snatched away his hand. He had misinterpreted her. What had he been thinking of? Again he tried to summon up the image of his wife, but he couldn’t. He began to explain to Candace about the difference between the Greek of contemporary Alexandria and the classical language that Didius Seneca had learnt as a boy.
Halfway through, smoke began to appear from the lower piece of wood, and Candace told Marcus to add kindling to it. She blew gently on the glowing spark that soon appeared and Marcus fed her flame. Soon a blaze was roaring. Marcus looked up from the fire and caught Candace staring at him gravely. He glanced away, confused, and then looked back.
‘Ah! You’ve got quite a little fire going between you!’
Didius Seneca had awoken, and was shuffling over. Marcus realised that evening was coming on. He was about to suggest they go and check on the Praetorians when he heard the sound of them climbing up the crag.
Brutus swaggered into the firelight, followed by the other two soldiers who carried bloody steaks crudely presumably hacked from Behemoth’s carcase.
‘Good work, procurator,’ he boomed. He turned to his men. ‘Get cooking that meat.’
In the excitement of preparing and eating their first meal in the strange new country, Marcus momentarily forgot Candace’s words, but as they bedded down for the night beside the embers of the fire, with one Praetorian standing on watch on the highest section of the outcrop, he turned them over and over in his mind, trying to wrest a deeper meaning from them. Strange cries echoed out of the darkness, the calls of he knew not what kind of creatures.
Was he guilty of wishful thinking? And what if what he suspected was true? He was a married man. Drusilla depended on him. He had got all this way, and although he hadn’t found the crocodilopard itself, this land was infested with creatures that would give the Colosseum lions a run for their money. All they needed to do was catch one and float it back down the Nile to the sea.
But now Marcus was wondering if he wanted to return to the corruption and greed of Rome. Perhaps he had found a better life, in the back of beyond.
He fell asleep with his belly full of Behemoth steak and this half-comforting, half-disturbing notion in his mind.
He was woken by the sound of vomiting. He tried to move but terrible pangs shot through his belly. He opened his eyes to see it was morning. A nasty taste was in his mouth. He rolled over and his stomach spasmed and he was sick on the clayey ground. As he did so, he heard retching sounds from all around.
He lifted himself up weakly with his hands and looked about him. Here was Brutus, hands to his belly, vomiting by the ashes of the last night’s fire. There was Didius Seneca, paler than ever, clutching his stomach, a sheen of sweat on his brow. Primus lay nearby in a welter of vomit and misery.
Another spasm seized Marcus and he lost interest in his companions as he threw up more of last night’s meat. He felt like death.
It was a long time before he felt any better. He repeatedly fouled his under-tunic as well as vomiting. It seemed that his entire body was intent on purging his stomach any way it could. Locked in his own world of misery, he was still aware that the others were equally badly affected. It must have been the meat, he realised dimly. Behemoth meat would not catch on as a delicacy, even in the most decadent circles of Roman life.
It occurred to him to wonder where Candace was. He recalled that she had eaten little of the meat, but no one had been worried at the time; the Romans had gulped it down, while Candace watched blankly. He knew she felt alienated by them at the best of times. A memory from the small hours flashed back as he lay retching, having emptied his stomach one way or the other; he had woken briefly to see Candace rise and walk past the fire. Where had she gone? At the time he had thought she was going to relieve the guard, but now Marcus wondered if she had not gone out into the forest.
A noise from above made him turn weakly. Candace stood there, on the edge of the hollow, a bone-tipped spear in her hand and the carcase of a small animal over her shoulders. In her other hand, she gripped a chunk of some greyish mineral.
She jumped down into the hollow and wrinkled her nose in disgust at the smell coming from the four Romans. Dropping the carcase and the spear, she flourished the mineral.
‘Salt,’ she said. ‘I hope to use it as an emetic. I hunted far and wide for it, in the forests north of here. It looks as though I did not need it.’
Marcus shook his head weakly. He glanced at the other Romans, who had all thoroughly and messily purged themselves. ‘We all needed to get something off our chests,’ he said, trying to make a joke of it. A thought struck him. ‘Where’s Quintus?’
‘Over there.’ Candace indicated the outcrop where the Praetorian stood guard; a writhing figure lay at its foot. ‘Much the same as the rest of you. I didn’t like the meat, so I didn’t have more than a mouthful.’
Shuddering, Marcus got up and went to sit by the embers of the fire. ‘What’s that you’ve got?’ he asked, indicating the animal.
Brutus dragged himself over to join them. His face was a sickly green and he was shivering, but he seemed to be on the mend.
‘Looks like a horse,’ he commented.
Marcus stared at it. The centurion was right; a horse about the size of a small dog. He had never seen anything so strange. Or had he? He seemed to remember something on the mosaic Didius Seneca had shown him. He tried to draw the senator’s attention to the carcase, but Didius Seneca just groaned pitifully and ignored him.
‘We can eat it, I think,’ Candace said.
‘How can we trust anything in this country?’ Marcus asked. ‘We thought we could eat Behemoth.’
Candace shrugged. ‘We must try.’ She turned to Brutus and indicated that she wanted his sword to butcher the beast. ‘Tell him,’ she told Marcus.
‘She wants your sword,’ he said. Unwillingly, the centurion handed it over. ‘Where did you get that spear?’ Marcus asked.
Candace looked at him, eyebrows raised in surprise. ‘I made it,’ she said simply.
Sometime later, Marcus, Brutus and the two Praetorians had recovered sufficiently from their poisoning to try a little of the horsemeat. It was surprisingly good, considering the creature’s small size, rich and tasty like the best horsemeat Marcus had eaten in Aquileia on the Adriatic, accounted the best centre of horsemeat in Italy. Although stronger after their meal, Primus and Quintus looked mutinous when their centurion ordered them to clean up the hollow.
Didius Seneca worried Marcus. The senator seemed even worse after the poisoning. The fever he had had on and off since they went south of the First Cataract had weakened him but after eating the poisonous meat he was declining fast.
‘Someone will have to look after him tomorrow,’ he said worriedly. It had been a mistake to bring him along.
‘What’s happening tomorrow?’ Brutus asked.
‘Tomorrow I think we had better start exploring this country,’ Marcus said, feeling more authoritative with some horsemeat inside him. ‘We are on a mission for the Emperor, you may remember. And we can only stay here so long.’
‘Why’s that?’ Brutus wanted to know.
‘I explained before,’ Marcus replied. ‘The water rises in a few weeks’ time. This whole area may be flooded. Certainly, from what Candace says, we will be unable to get back through the cavern if we stay any longer. That must be what happened to Simeon.’
Brutus nodded abruptly. ‘Very well. One man will stay here tomorrow with the senator. The rest of us will set out up the valley. Looks like the Negress has already explored a short way. We’ll quarter the area. Where do you think it’s most likely we’ll find the monster?’
‘The mosaic showed it beside a lake,’ Marcus said.
Brutus brightened. ‘Like the pool below?’
Marcus shook his head. ‘Larger.’ He nodded in the direction of the escarpment and the falls that tumbled down it. ‘I think it may be in that direction.’
‘Very well,’ said Brutus. ‘For now, we rest, regain our strength. Tomorrow we set out to find the crocodilopard.’
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK